Consonants and Vowels ~ The Linguistics Zone

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Consonants and Vowels

What's the difference between a consonant and a vowel?

In grade school, I'm pretty sure you've been taught that there are 5 vowels: AEIOU. The rest are consonants. However, this distinction fails to take into account the sounds of the letters. There are more sounds in English than there are letters (in the written form). The sounds and letters of a particular language do not always form a 1 to 1 correspondence, and this is why we must use 2 letters to represent a single sound (such as "sh").

How we produce speech sounds

The process in which we produce sound by using our vocal tract is much like that of a wind instrument. Each sound differs from another sound by a unique combination of features: the way you shape your mouth and tongue and move parts of the vocal apparatus when you make the sound. Air coming from the lungs passes through the vocal tract, which shapes it into different sounds. Then the air exits the vocal tract through the mouth and/or nose.

What differentiates a consonant and a vowel in terms of speech sounds?

Quite simply: Consonants are pronounced by obstructing the airflow through the vocal tract.

(Note: the details of how to pronounce every sound is beyond the scope of this site)

Example:
The [p] sound is made by obstructing air at the lips. When you say the word put, air is built up behind the lips and then released.

On the other hand, vowels are different from consonant sounds in that they are produced by passing air through different shapes of the mouth and different positions of the tongue and lips.

Examples:
For the "ahhh" sound (the vowel in the word pot, IPA [ɑ]) the tongue's position is in the lower back of the mouth.
For the "eeeee" sound (the vowel in the word be, IPA [i]) the tongue's position is in the upper front of the mouth. (This is why we say cheese when we take pictures!)

775 comments:

Thomas (babelhut.com) said...

So is English "r" technically considered to be a vowel? We don't touch our tongue anywhere, so it doesn't seem like we are obstructing the airflow.

john said...

The R sound in English (along with W, L, and Y) are known as approximants. This is because the vocal tract is not narrowed enough to produce the audible friction that typically comes with other consonants.

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I knew a lot of this kind of thing. But i had no idea it was because the different positions of the tounge in the mouth. Really suprised me. Good read.

Regards Andrew

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Now I know why my mom always made me say cheese! lol That is really cool. I will pass this one on to my daughter.

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I've always felt that cool names always have a front high vowel preceded by a nasal ;)

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English is amazing yet so utterly unexplainable at times. It would be interesting to study further the way your mouth forms all those sounds and how that compares to other languages.

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This is a really good article, informative and useful. Maybe if you can post about diphthongs too. Thank you for sharing.

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It would be interesting to study further the way your mouth forms all those sounds and how that compares to other languages.

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It sounds nice but while we pronounce words and we think about this then the people around us will find nothing to do but laugh....

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Matt (Project Management) said...

Very interesting article. I haven't touched on phonetics since high school!

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What about R!?

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Nice..reminds me of back in grade school.
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Consonants and vowels are important for Scrabble too!

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Eugene Chuang Garg said...

Yeah reminds me of my school days. Dont really miss them when I see this. Kinda confusing to me lol

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Kristian Liebrand said...

The process in which we produce sound by using our vocal tract is much like that of a wind instrument. Each sound differs from another sound by a unique combination of features: the way you shape your mouth and tongue and move parts of the vocal apparatus when you make the sound. Air coming from the lungs passes through the vocal tract, which shapes it into different sounds. Then the air exits the vocal tract through the mouth and/or nose.

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I had no idea that there is a physical difference in nouns and consonants. Go figure.

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When my age was about to 7 or 8 tears.Then my father makes me understand this thing.But still the thing is confusing to me.

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I have tried to learn the vowels and consonants to my little daughter.But she is not at all interested about this.

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I don't think in English "r" technically considered to be a vowel because there is no definition in any directory.

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Caro Prangenberg said...

Although French has nasalized vowels, making them difficult to pronounce for many English speakers, French is a very musical language. This is because words tend to flow from one word to the next with no pause in between them. In situations where there would be a pause, French requires that sounds be added or words changed. This is known as liaison.

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The R sound in English (along with W, L, and Y) are known as approximants. This is because the vocal tract is not narrowed enough to produce the audible friction that typically comes with other consonants

James said...

The process in which we produce sound by using our vocal tract is much like that of a wind instrument. Each sound differs from another sound by a unique combination of features: the way you shape your mouth and tongue and move parts of the vocal apparatus when you make the sound. Air coming from the lungs passes through the vocal tract, which shapes it into different sounds. Then the air exits the vocal tract through the mouth and/or nose.

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it doesn't seem like we are obstructing the airflow.

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I had to go through all the letters and notice if I was obstructing the air flow or not. Funny how you can go all your life exercizing the tongue, lips, throat, etc., and not realize what they are doing. And even though we don't think hard about what they are doing, they are very coordinated, unlike the rest of my body which is always running into edges of tables or countertops and picking up bruises and scratches.

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The way you shape your mouth and tongue and move parts of the vocal apparatus when you make the sound. Air coming from the lungs passes through the vocal tract, which shapes it into different sounds. Then the air exits the vocal tract through the mouth and/or nose.

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So the fact that consonants obstruct air flow must have something to do with why my music teacher said that consonants are not musical. It is best when singing to underpronounce the "s" sound at the end of a word, otherwise it sounds like you are hissing, especially with a microphone in hand.

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So the fact that consonants obstruct air flow must have something to do with why my music teacher said that consonants are not musical. It is best when singing to underpronounce the "s" sound at the end of a word, otherwise it sounds like you are hissing, especially with a microphone in hand.

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Thanks for the article, it really helps to understand the English language.

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What does shorter consonants and longer vowels mean in singing?
I am auditioning for Les Miserables as any of the main guy roles. But I sang the beginning of Do You Hear the People Sing? And she said that it was good, but I need to use shorter consonants and longer vowels can you explain what she means please? I am trying mostly for Enjorlas

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This popular and accessible introduction to phonetics is now available in a fully updated second edition. Peter Ladefoged describes how languages use a variety of different sounds, many of them quite unlike any that occur in well-known languages.

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Thanks for the article.It is very beneficial for those who want to learn perfect English.Also there is difference between the tongue of different position.
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